The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire, by Pierre Briant (translated by Nicholas Elliott), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2016, $35
Briant, professor emeritus of the history of the Archaemenid world and Alexander’s empire at the Collège de France in Paris, describes The First European as “the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation and selection of materials from primary and secondary sources.” Sources he cites include not only written materials but also paintings, tapestries, sculptures and other items of historical relevance.
The book examines the intellectual history of the Enlightenment (the long 18th century), as Western Europeans grappled with the legacy of Alexander’s conquest of the Orient and the lessons nation-states of the era might apply in their own relations with the powerful Ottoman empire, perceived as the successor to Alexander’s Persian satrapy.
To attempt such an undertaking requires diligent study and comprehension of all the major works on Alexander written from antiquity to the Enlightenment—the latter including volumes written in English, French and German—as well as an understanding of peripheral works, including travel books of the era, maps, works of art, even coins. It is a prodigious task, one reflected in Briant’s small-print bibliography of more than 50 pages, accompanied by another 50 pages listing footnotes and excurses.
The resulting work is mainly of interest to other historiographers, the “inside baseball” of classic European historians. That said, Briant’s approach is to present samples from every writer included in his analysis—more than 200—and in so doing he gives the lay reader the broad brushstrokes of history without the effort of having to read each work in the original French, English or German. The author’s opus is a first-rate work of historiography and a true intellectual achievement.